Comedian Jimmy Pardo, Conan’s Crowd Pleaser, returns to his Roots with Penguin’s Performance

Jimmy Pardo to perform at Penguin's Comedy Club
Jimmy Pardo (left) records a live edition of the Never Not Funny podcast. — photo by Cleft Clips

Comedian Jimmy Pardo

Penguin’s Comedy Club — Aug. 8-9 at 7:30 p.m.

Jimmy Pardo has made a name for himself through his quick-witted, energetic, free-associative style of “crowd work” comedy, a genre of stand-up that gets its laughs mostly through audience interaction rather than rehearsed material. And since 2010, he’s held a crowd work comic’s dream job, warming up the audiences as the opening act for Conan, which has led to regular appearances on the show and a variety of television projects.

Pardo has cultivated a strong following through the LA comedy scene with one-man shows at the UCB theatre and his podcast Never Not Funny — one of the first comedy podcasts to find success — but when the Chicago native was first getting his footing in standup twenty years ago, the one place he could reliably find a receptive audience to work with was at Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids. Pardo returns to perform at the club this Friday and Saturday, and Little Village caught up with him to talk about his early days as a comic touring the midwest, his improvisational style of humor, dealing with unruly audiences and his current television success.

Little Village: Now that you have a regular spot as the opening act for Conan, there must be much less pressure to tour as a stand-up. What motivates you to go out and perform in comedy clubs?

I do it just to stay active in the comedy scene. I like doing stand-up. I am lucky that I can now basically just pick the twelve clubs I want to do and just do one a month. With Penguin’s, it was the first club that really embraced me early on. [Penguin’s owner] Jeff Johnson, and his brother Jim and their father Jerry, they really loved what I was doing comedically way back in the day. Jeff would start promoting me like “Penguin’s is lucky to be booking Jimmy Pardo,” because he would sit and laugh and love me, and didn’t care what the audience thought. But all of a sudden, the audience was on board. You tell somebody “hey, this guy is great,”and the guy is good, they’re going to tell their friends and before you know it, Cedar Rapids was the first city I was headlining and selling out.

You’re well known for your quick wit and this really seemed to come to the fore with your recent appearance on @midnight. There was a segment where you had to come up with names for “Father’s Day Bands” and you just kept delivering them up from every direction — Cialis Cooper, Steve Ray Vaughmower, Dinosour Sr. Does that sort of humor just come to you spontaneously?

You know, I got very lucky with that because I am this guy that makes a gazillion ’70s and ’80s music references. And so when this category comes up, I am just going through all my favorite bands and trying to turn them into a hashtag. I am not the greatest at that game. There is a skill to it. But, yeah, for that one, it got kind of ridiculous how I could just keep hitting that button. I got lucky and it became a moment to shine.

Though you do perform some prepared material, most of what you do on stage is off the cuff. Do you think that leads you to approach a show differently than other comics? For example, instead of rehearsing stand-up bits, are you looking out at the audience, trying to size them up? Or do you prefer not to think about it all and just go out there and perform?

I love for shows to be, for lack of a better term, “old school” show business. The kind of performance where a curtain opens and its showtime and that is the first time you see the audience. I never like to see them come in. I never like to judge them early, good or bad. You just don’t want to get in the wrong mindset. So I just kind of stay backstage. Usually, I am working with people that are fun and we’re just in the greenroom making each other laugh, and then when it is time to go on stage, it just becomes an extension of what was happening backstage.

Do you think you have a better time with hecklers and inattentive audience members because of the way you approach comedy? On some of your comedy albums, they seem to feed into your set rather that take away from it.

In the old days, I loved hecklers. All the anger of being mocked in grade school and high school, I was able to take that out on these people who were interrupting my comedy show. As I get older, and, dare I say, even a little bit mellow, I would prefer for people not to heckle. I would prefer not to have to deal with stupidity. I want to include the audience as opposed to chastise them.

Was having to deal with hecklers a big part of the comedy scene when you were starting out in Chicago?

Performing in Chicago was great, but I really started out by going on the road all over the midwest and just working a bunch of one-nighters. You know, they were hard gigs. I was the guy who would get in his car and drive eight hours and do stand-up and then bomb and then get up the next day and drive eight hours to another club and bomb. And part of that was starting out, but part of that was also that they weren’t always great crowds. At these places, one night would comedy, the next night they would have the Thunder from Down Under, and the next night they would have a Def Leopard cover band. My first couple of years on the road, I was dealing with the roughest crowds. It was almost like the Blues Brothers, you know, with the bottles being thrown at thrown at them through chicken wire.

Do you think it made you a better comic having to cut your teeth on these kind of crowds?

It wasn’t the greatest scenario, but it certainly toughened my skills for when I started working comedy clubs on a consistent basis. It was fight-or-flight. I had to stay on stage a certain amount of time to turn my paycheck. I am painting a horrible picture though. They weren’t all bad crowds. But when you do some small town in Wisconsin that likes one style of comedy and you’re not offering that, and there are these guys in flannel shirts yelling at you, you got to defend the stage.

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